Empathy, Awareness and the Need to Belong

I love social media, as the platforms allow me to stay connected with people important to me and to make new connections that transcend physical boundaries, but I'll also be the first to say that these communities can also be vile places, in which we are often shown people at their worst. From commentary and comment streams on social media, blogs and news websites (among others), one could make the inference that we, as humans, are quickly drifting apart, as each heated conversation and string of insults shows just how different we are.

While the assessment is probably correct based on our collective digital footprint alone, I do not agree that this is an unsolvable problem or that all is lost. I believe, at a deep level, that we are more similar than we are different, and I've been thinking quite a bit about the things that bring us together. 

For example, the need to belong is an important part of what makes us human, and is an ingrained psychological imperative. In psychology, the belongingness hypothesis states that "people have a basic psychological need to feel closely connected to others, and that caring, affectionate bonds from close relationships are a major part of human behavior." Whether it’s feeling like we’re a part of a club, community, a movement, a mission, or all of the above, this deep desire to be included is one thing that unites us all. 

Thus, I think we have a place to start in terms of bringing people back together.  As I've written in past posts, I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and would never wish that feeling on anyone. Even with my experience, however, I still need to remind myself every day to be as inclusive as possible - it's just easier said than done. Below are a few things I feel I can improve on (and that I think most of us can improve on) when it comes to helping others feel like they belong. 

We Can Perform Daily Maintenance on Our Empathy

If I could wish one thing for all of us, it would be that we could have unlimited empathy in our hearts, refilled on a daily basis every morning when we wake up. I consider myself an empathetic person, but when someone cuts me off on the highway, adds an unnecessary hassle to my day or snaps at me over something trivial, I have to remind myself that every person is fighting a personal battle that I know nothing about. It's such a simple concept, but is there anything more difficult to sustain in practice?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, and is often confused with sympathy (feeling compassion or sorrow for the hardships that another person encounters). Reminding myself of the difference between the two is often what helps the most, as I think most people don't want our pity - they want us to understand and acknowledge what they are going through. 

We Can All Practice Expanding Our Awareness

Being empathetic is, in my opinion, the most important quality we can have as human beings, but we can be empathetic, yet still unaware of the feelings those around us. We are all so busy that it can be phenomenally difficult to put our own concerns aside and focus on others - its just a harsh reality of life that we are all struggling on one way or another.

Once we understand this, however, it’s amazing how often a chance presents itself to make someone else’s day. It’s kind of like when you get a new car, then suddenly see hundreds of the same car everywhere you go - we are just programmed to miss things that are already there. Let’s not let ourselves miss these opportunities anymore. 

We Can All Make Others Feel Important

Feel free to disagree with me here, but I don't think there's a magic formula for helping people feel like they belong. At its most basic level, we can belong if we want to be a part of something, and those who are already a part of that community make us feel like they want us to be there too.

Whether it's The Goonies, Stranger Things or The Sandlot, we love stories about affable, motley crews of "misfits" who band together, form relationships and overcome obstacles, because all of us can see ourselves in their struggles (and, hopefully, in their triumphs). If we can try to remember how these wonderful stories make us feel, and then apply those feelings to our daily lives, I think we'll find that we're not just making others happier, but that we're happier ourselves.

We can all be more empathetic, we can all be more aware and we can all take the time to make someone else, even just for a moment, feel like the center of the universe. As we approach the most wonderful time of the year, that's about as great a gift as we could give.